Pieter van Laer—or Pieter Boddingh, as he was originally called1—was baptized in Haarlem on 15 December 1599. His parents were the schoolmaster Jacob Boddingh (b. ca. 1571) of Haarlem and Magdalena Heyns (b. ca. 1573), whose father was a respected literary scholar and a schoolmaster in Antwerp, Pieter Heyns (1537–98).2 Van Laer’s older brother Roeland (1598–ca. 1635) also became a painter and later accompanied Pieter to Italy where, according to Theodorus Schrevelius (1572–1649), he suffered a tragic fall with his mule from a bridge in Genoa. Pieter’s younger brother Nicolaes followed in his father’s footsteps and became a schoolmaster and later a minister. He also enjoyed a modicum of fame as a writing master, in which capacity he published two books.
According to the Italian biographer Giovanni Battista Passeri (1610–79), Van Laer learned to paint in Holland.3 His teacher was not recorded, but judging from a drawing signed “P. Boddink inventor” from before 1625, the most plausible candidate is Esaias van de Velde (1587–1630), who was active in Haarlem between 1611 and 1618.4 No paintings from Van Laer’s first Haarlem period have been identified; however, in addition to the drawing just mentioned, there are another dozen sheets in a songbook, the provenance of which is not known.5
Van Laer’s stay in Haarlem was brief. Following a trip through France, in 1625 he settled in Rome, on the Via Margutta, the very heart of the Roman painters’ community, which was close to the Piazza del Popolo.6 Van Laer joined the Schildersbent, the famous artists’ fraternity in Rome whose members called themselves the Bentvueghels (“birds of a feather”), and was nicknamed “de Snuffelaar,” or the sniffer, doubtless on account of his oversize nose.7
Disproportion characterized Van Laer’s entire body. According to Arnold Houbraken, who relied on Joachim von Sandrart’s (1606–88) Teutsche Academie, Van Laer’s “lower body was three times larger than his torso, [and he] had a short chest, with a head that sunk into his shoulders and no neck.”8 This odd physique led the Italians to dub him “il Bamboccio,” a name, according to Houbraken, “they use to call such people, which in the manner of Italian jest means a strange way of bending or twisting of the body, and striking amusing poses.”9 This sobriquet would come to stand for an entirely new type of painting “patented” by Van Laer, which earned him great fame both in Rome and in the Netherlands. These bambocciante—Roman street scenes with genre figures such as beggars, peddlers, vendors, and artisans—are generally painted in dark tones and with a Caravaggesque chiaroscuro. Van Laer attracted many followers in Italy, known as the Bamboccianti. The association of his nickname with this genre is not without irony. In the 1960s a serious attempt was made to chart his oeuvre, from which it emerged that this definition applies only to a small part of it. The subjects are mostly taken from life in the Campagna: Italian landscapes populated with men on horseback, farmers, and herdsmen. Thus Albert Blankert’s observation that, in addition to being a genre painter, Van Laer was an important landscape painter is entirely apt.10
Van Laer met with great success in Rome; buyers were eager to purchase his work, which allowed him to charge substantial prices.11 He also shipped part of what he produced to the Netherlands, where it fetched even higher prices.12 Van Laer regularly kept company with fellow countrymen, including Herman van Swanevelt (1603–55), Leonard Bramer (1596–1674), and Andries Both (1612/13–42), and also had contact with the French painters Claude Lorrain (1604/05–82) and Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), with whom he ventured into the countryside around Rome to paint or draw landscapes from life.13 Another good friend was Sandrart who lived in Rome between 1629 and 1635. Sandrart drew a portrait of Van Laer in his workshop, which he later included in his Teutsche Academie.
Finally submitting to Sandrart’s repeated insistence that he return to his fatherland because there he “could live more comfortably than in Italy,” Van Laer left Rome in 1639. After a brief stop in Amsterdam, where he “was well received and duly shown all honor, affection and good wishes,” he arrived in Haarlem and moved in with his brother Nicolaes.14 He met Sandrart again, with whom, according to Houbraken, he “once visited Gerrit Dou [in Leiden], who received them and showed them some of his works which he had partly or entirely finished, and which they praised.”15
Little else is known about Van Laer’s second sojourn in Haarlem. What is certain is that he did not stay there long. According to Schrevelius, he left the city again shortly after he had arrived “and where he went and where in the world he may be, following the example of Empedocles, is not known to this day.”16 This is confirmed by Van Laer’s sister who, in her will of 1654, noted that he had already been abroad for twelve years and that she had not heard from him in all that time.17 Van Laer must have left in or shortly after 1641, for a drawing by him from that year occurs in the same songbook to which he contributed before his first departure from Haarlem.18
Van Laer’s work exerted a powerful influence on other Haarlem landscape painters, such as the celebrated Philips Wouwerman (1619–68). The latter responded to Van Laer’s bambocciatas, or depictions of ambushes and scenes of travelers at rest, to such an extent that one wonders if Houbraken’s comment that Wouwerman had appropriated Van Laer’s drawings contains a kernel of truth.19 The veracity of Houbraken’s information is doubtful, however. At the time of his death in 1667, the Haarlem painter Frederick Vroom (ca. 1600–67), whose father was the famous marine painter Hendrick Vroom (ca. 1563–1640), possessed two little books with sketches, twenty-one loose sheets with primarily studies of animals, and a few paintings including a tronie by Van Laer and “een groor paert” (a large horse) by his brother Roeland.20 Before leaving Haarlem, Van Laer evidently either sold or gave the contents of his workshop to Vroom.